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Friday, 4 December 2020

And then there were three: writing a historical trilogy with Richard Buxton

I’m delighted to welcome Richard Buxton back to the blog. He’s recently published the second novel in his Shire’s Union trilogy, a historical series set during the American Civil War featuring Englishman Shire. Now he’s working on the final book and shares his thoughts on writing a trilogy. I’ve been part of a workshop group with Richard sharing our writing since we completed our MAs and have been privileged to read/review Shire’s journey so far. I’m looking forward to the final book but also feel similar to Richard in that it will be tough not to have these characters in my life.

You can read my review of THE COPPER ROAD at the end of this post …

Richard lives with his family in the South Downs, Sussex, England. He competed an MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University in 2014. He has an abiding relationship with America, having studies
at Syracuse University, New York State, in the late eighties. His short stories have won the Exeter Story Prize, the Bedford International Writing Competition and the Nivalis Short Story Award. 

Richard's first novel, Whirligig, was published in 2017 and shortlisted for the Rubery International Book Award. His second novel, The Copper Road, was released in July 2020. 


Shire is far from home, his old life in Victorian England a fading memory. He's battled through war-

torn America to keep a cherished promise to his childhood companion. Now she’s pushing him away, while the war won’t let him go. Fighting for the Union, Shire must survive the brutal campaign for Atlanta and try to imagine a future without her.

Clara is free from her husband but not from his ghost. After a violent end to an abusive marriage, she struggles to keep her home in the Tennessee hills as the war steals away its treasures and its people.

Tod, a captured Rebel, escapes in Pennsylvania. His encounters on the long road back to his regiment cast the Civil War in a different light. He begins to question his will to fight.

Three young lives become wrapped in the Rebels’ desperate need for copper. Friendships, loyalty and love will be tested beyond breaking point. Shire has new promises to keep.

And Then There Were Three

There are different levels of commitment when it comes to writing in the long form. Claiming you’ve always wanted to write a book but can never find the time is no commitment at all. Starting a novel is laudable and impressive if you finish it. Casually announcing halfway through writing your first that it’s going to be a trilogy is just highly reckless. I fall into the latter category. It doesn’t help if you are ‘blessed’ with a stubborn streak, born to see things through at all costs. ‘Nothing pays off like persistence,’ a good friend once told me. I’ll let you know if that turns out to be true.

There are upsides, of course. I wouldn’t be without my own Shire’s Union trilogy based in the American Civil War composed of Whirligig, The Copper Road and Tigers in Blue (under construction). There’s a certain long-term comfort, a bit like knowing you’re not going to move house anytime soon. Much of the heavy lifting is done in the first book. Whatever your genre, you’ll have got your universe sorted out. Your characters are ready and waiting for the further books assuming you haven’t killed them off already. You’ve probably settled into your writing voice. If you’re really lucky you have a readership, or at least a favourite aunt, who is gently clawing at you for book two.

But there are also flipsides to the upsides. Let’s start with character and story arcs. Unless you are planning cliff-hanger endings to the early books - it works for Doctor Who but less so with novels – your characters are each going to need a satisfying arc that works for each book as well as one for the trilogy. This involves some major forward planning, or at least forward emoting. What images do you see for the last scene in the last book that are going to leave your aunt reaching for her hankie?

I’m about a quarter way through drafting my final book and realised early on that, as with book two, I needed to totally reassess my characters’ states of mind. How have they changed? Do they have new objectives or desires? This is more pronounced than in a longer series where the number of books extends towards infinity. Series have the option to be more formulaic and character development isn’t required to the same extent. With Bernard Cornwell’s enduring character Sharpe, for example, as a reader I was happy he turned up each time as the same up from the ranks, chip on his shoulder, next book next woman, battle frenzy soldier. In a trilogy, I’d argue, the character progression needs to be more evident from book to book.

I discussed trilogy structures with my good friend Phil Williams, a fellow West Sussex Writer and already with two dystopian and fantastical trilogies under his belt, the Estalia and Sunken City trilogies. ‘It’s possible,’ Phil says, 'to view a trilogy as a single story structure: book 1 as the call to action, book 2 as the rising action, and book 3 as the climax. But within each book there are smaller versions of that same structure for each contained tale.'

If you are a writer with modest experience, I’d suggest being careful with voice. No doubt you will want to develop and progress, you may have recently read a new author whose voice you really admire, but your aunt has expectations now. A sudden shift to first person, or trying to be more literary or more commercial is going to unbalance the trilogy.

Another big wrestle is how much help you may give to book 2 readers who didn’t trouble to open their purse to buy book 1. I decided against a ‘what’s gone before’ insert into The Copper Road. It felt like it would cheapen the trilogy somehow. Nevertheless, you will have to judge how much reminding you do on what has gone before. This is an art in itself. There’s already likely to be some degree of scene-setting early in book 2, so if you are ‘reminding’ as well, then there’s a huge risk that the pace will drop and auntie will have a flat read. The dynamics and pace of the individual books have to be paramount. I’m finding with book 3 that I’m putting in even less in the way of recaps. It’s on the cover. Book 3 of Shire’s Union. Your funeral! 

If you think you have a trilogy on your hands, ask yourself why. Is it just that you always loved Lord of the Rings or is there some broader story that you are trying to tell where one book just won’t do? In my case, the history got hold of me and wouldn’t let go. I’d placed my English hero, Shire, in the 125th Ohio Infantry in Whirligig as there were so many first-hand accounts from the regiment. Their first active posting was in Franklin, Tennessee in 1863 and I dutifully went there to research. On a guided tour, in the basement of a farmhouse which became the epicentre of a climactic battle in late 1864, I discovered the longer heroic story of the regiment and knew I had to write a trilogy. Shire would have to fight his way to Chattanooga in Whirligig, towards Atlanta in The Copper Road but would come full circle in Tigers in Blue, back to Franklin, to complete his story.

 The final trial will be to finish the last book, to say goodbye to characters that I’ve lived with these last several years. I’d not thought about that before writing this article and I begin to sense how emotional that will be. They have been constant, if silent, companions. Oh well, I’ll know where to find them if I need them. 

Where to buy Richard's books:


The Copper Road

Learn more about Richard’s writing at www.richardbuxton.net.

eBooks for both novels will be on sale from the 4th to 11th of December.

My review of THE COPPER ROAD:

Richard Buxton’s second novel in the Shire’s Union series is page turning quality historical fiction with a dash of romance. The Copper Road continues the story of a young Englishman, Shire, thrown unwittingly into the American Civil War and fighting for the Union. His fortune and fate is bound to his childhood friend, Clara, (the daughter of an English Duke). Clara faces her own battles in The Copper Road to protect her dead husband’s Southern estate from marauding gangs. Her unfulfilled love for Shire is tested when she meets Todd, an escaped Confederate prison-of-war, a man with a deep sense of justice and a passionate heart. How will Clara choose between two men, both her equals in intellect and compassion?

The Copper Road is beautifully written by a genuine storyteller. I was completely immersed in the setting and world of 19th century America, effortlessly brought to life by this accomplished writer. Along with the wonderful descriptions it was the interlaced story of the three main characters that kept me hooked and reading to the end. The Copper Road takes you on a cracking journey and will leave you aching to read the next installment.

Monday, 23 November 2020

The House on the Corner by Alison Woodhouse

I’m excited to welcome Alison Woodhouse to chat with us today about her debut ‘The House on the Corner’ (published by Ad Hoc Fiction). ‘The House on the Corner’ is a novella-in-flash, which is still a new form and perhaps is unknown to many of you. I’ve been lucky enough to meet Alison at various events in the last few years, and to hear her read her work at the Flash Fiction Festival and other workshops. It was a delight to read her debut (I could hear her voice in every story) and my own review is at the end of this post. 

Alison Woodhouse is a teacher, tutor and writer. Her short fiction has won a number of competition, including Flash 500, Hastings, HISSAC (both flash & short story), NFFD micro, Biffy50, Farnham,

AdHoc micro (twice) and Limnisa and many others have been placed or shortlisted. Her stories are widely published both in print and online, including In the Kitchen (Dahlia Press), With One Eyes on the Cows (Bath flash fiction), Leicester Writes 2018 & 2020 (Dahlia Press), The Real Jazz Baby (Reflex), A Girl’s Guide go Fishing (Reflex), National Flash Fiction Day Anthologies and Life on the Margins (Scottish Arts Trust Story Awards). She is part of the team who run the Bath Short Story Award and has an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) from Bath Spa. Her debut Novella in Flash, The House on the Corner, is published by AdHoc Fiction. 

Twitter: @AJWoodhouse

Facebook:  Alison Woodhouse

Set at the end of the eighties and early nineties, The House on The Corner traces the changes in the
lives of a middle-class nuclear family. As history unfolds outside the house, an ever-deepening crisis threatens the fragile, tenuous connections within. 

Question: A novella-in-flash will be a new form to many readers. Can you tell us what makes this different from a collection of stories?

Hi Tracy, thank you for inviting me onto your blog. I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer as I’m still unravelling what a novella in flash is myself! There are as many styles and subjects as there are flash fictions! For me, I think it differs from a collection of flash stories because it tells one story, the unifying story, in tiny shards or fragments, leaving a lot of space for the reader to make the connections. Each flash contains a nugget whose whole meaning is revealed in conjunction with the rest of the pieces. Whilst each story does stand alone, the impact is greatly increased when they are read together. A collection of flash stories can share themes and even recurring characters, but they are not narratively interdependent and often you can dip in and out. My novella in flash (Nif) is about what happens next, the consequences of characters’ choices. It was a wonderful way for me to explore the family of four over a period of time and chart the changes that happen both within and without the house, moving freely between point of view and jumps in time. I especially enjoy the fracturing in a Nif, because it leaves so much unsaid, which I love in fiction. You really can show not tell! But I wouldn’t get too bogged down in trying to define exactly what it is. In the end, I wanted to try and get the weight and feel that a novel can give a reader, but in far fewer words and I hope the Nif worked! 

Question: Can you tell us how The House on the Corner came to be written and then published? I’m interested to know if you always had a story arc in mind or if it evolved after writing several individual flash stories?

Bath Flash Fiction Award runs an annual Novella in Flash competition, which closes in January. I had read a few of the AdHoc Fiction Nifs and really enjoyed them. The ones that particularly stayed with me (How to Make a Window Snake by Charmaine Wilkinson, for instance, or Homing by Johanna Robinson) were novelistic in scope but so crafted and clever and memorable. The deadline for Bath was a week away when I had a coffee with a friend (Diane Simmons, author of An Inheritance and Finding a Way) and she suggested I entered. I’d started writing flash and entering competitions a couple of years ago and had a fair bit of success winning prizes etc but though I often write about family I didn’t think the flash I’d written had enough connections in terms of story, so the challenge was I’d have to write something new, minimum 6000 words in under a week (Note: maximum is 18,000 words and Alison's is 10,000 words in length). I do like a challenge! I’d been struggling for months with a novel set in the eighties and early nineties and had done lots of research about the impact of the Berlin Wall coming down and the end of the Cold War and all the seismic changes that happened in such a short time and I knew I wanted to set it in that period but wear the history lightly as the novel had got bogged down. Walking home I began to ‘see’ my family of characters and where they lived. I wrote the first story that evening, with the estate agent selling them the house, and then I was off! I wrote the whole thing in less than a week, giving myself a day to proofread. I can honestly say it was thrilling – the most writing fun I’ve ever had. I didn’t stop to look down, just leapt from story to story, keeping all the connections in my head. I think I said this somewhere else, but it was like weaving, or harmonising! To get back to your question (sorry!), there was an arc of sorts set by dates and the opening and closing stories, but the lives of the characters evolved as I wrote. The novella was Highly Commended, which meant it would be published, alongside the other six novellas. The official launch date is actually this Saturday 28th November. Michael Loveday, the judge, offered some excellent feedback prior to publication and I wrote two new stories for balance and strengthened the ending. I feel incredibly lucky, as I really enjoyed writing it, and Jeanette Sheppard (multi-talented author of Seventy Percent Water) painted me the most beautiful cover.

Note: Jeanette Sheppard recently featured on here to talk about her writing and art, you can read her interview here.

Question: What triggers or inspires a story for you? Can you share your writing process for short fiction? 

Interesting question. I often ‘see’ a phrase, or a word, or a scene. Not exactly memory but just my mind wandering off then getting snagged on something. I also like prompts. Last year Adhoc had the word ‘mistake’ as their weekly competition prompt and I saw the first sentence of my flash, that went on to win (read it here); and the rest of the story flowed from that. My story that won Flash500, The Green Dress (read it here), came from an exercise to write about a loved object from childhood. It took me over two years to write that one, as in each subsequent rewrite I delved deeper into the complicated emotions around ‘love’. A lot of writing, for me, is rewriting and I think that’s particularly important in short fiction. In longer form you need the momentum to keep going and though you edit afterwards you can forgive undulations in the text. In a novel sometimes people just have to get from A to B. In short fiction every word matters, every resonance has to sound the intended note. That’s what I love about the rewrites. It’s about finding the sound and rhythms and perfect image for the emotion of the story.

Question: Can you tell us about your next writing project(s), what do you have in the pipeline? 

I have several projects on the go. Firstly, a sequel to The House on the Corner, set a few years later. I don’t know if this is another Nif or not yet. It’s quite different to the first one as it is mainly the wife, Helen, at the moment. I also want to finish the novel I began on my MA two years ago, the one that got bogged down! Since writing the Nif I can approach it differently, so I think that writing experience was really important. I also have about a dozen short stories, quite a few of them prize winning and published, and I want to add more and try and get them published as a collection. And I always have a folder of flash I’m rewriting! In other news, but still writing related, I’m now offering a critique service for flash and short story via my website (alisonwoodhouse.com). 

Question: Where can we buy a copy of The House on the Corner? 

Thank you for asking! Signed copies are available from my website.  

Online at AdHoc Fiction, Waterstones.com or Amazon

The House on the Corner is a novella-in-flash, taking us through eight years of one family’s life in 13 flash stories. Alison Woodhouse writes with such a delicate touch, exposing the heart of the King family with insight and understanding, yet the prose is never overdone or judgmental. This is small enough to be read in one sitting, but I’m glad I read it over several days, to savour and relish the unfolding story. When I finished, I immediately wanted to dive right back in at the beginning and wrap myself up in her writing. Each story can be read and enjoyed on its own, however together they build a complete and satisfying arc. I particularly loved how the opening and concluding stories dovetailed like a handshake, despite being set eight years apart. The recurrent details, such as the doorbell or the hamsters, were a joy to pick out and smile at.

The House on the Corner creaks with the melancholic sadness of unfulfilled lives; its stories echo with loneliness. This house is haunted by the living. The characters still linger with me, and my one final hope is that they all went on to find some happiness and contentment, if not together then at least for themselves.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Manual For A Decent Life: a novel by Kavita A. Jindal

I am delighted to welcome Kavita A. Jindal onto the Blog today. Kavita is here to talk about her novel ‘Manual For A Decent Life’ winner of the Brighthorse Prize for Novel and now published by Linen Press. I know Kavita's writing from The Whole Kahini, you can read about their anthology 'May We Borrow Your Country' here. LitPig is also chuffed to learn Kavita is a fan of Walnut Whips (a big favourite in our household). My review follows at the end of the interview …

Kavita A. Jinda
l is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in anthologies and literary journals worldwide and been broadcast on BBC Radio and European radio stations. She is the author of the novel Manual For A Decent Life which won the Brighthorse Prize as a manuscript. She has published two poetry collections to critical acclaim: Patina and Raincheck Renewed. She also writes short stories and essays. She's worked as an editor for literary journals and she's the co-founder of 'The Whole Kahani' writers' collective. In common with The Literary Pig's owner, Kavita regularly consumes walnut whips. 

Manual For A Decent Life:

India, 1996. Waheeda, a principled and spirited young woman from Uttar Pradesh sets her sights on becoming a Member of Parliament. But her romance with the scion of a Delhi business dynasty threatens that dream. Manual for a Decent Life plays out against the backdrop of a tumultuous time in

Indian politics in a world where nothing is what it seems and danger lurks at every turn.

 This ambitious novel is both epic and intimate as Jindal moves seamlessly between domestic family scenes, the passion of an illicit love affair and the instability of political parties vying for power at any cost. The fast-paced, plot-driven drama unfolds against the turbulent backdrop of India in the 1990s. The writing is accomplished, the story is thrilling with a bombshell of an ending.

Q- Can you share how you came to write ‘Manual For A Decent Life’ and tell us more about its path to publication?

This has been a long-haul project, with a meandering and tortured path to completion. I started the book about ten years ago after I’d completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London. I’d already written and published poetry and short stories but wanted to tell this particular story as it was based on my observations in North India from when I was a young adult and volunteered to help during elections. The narrative is completely fictitious as are the main characters, but the backdrop to their lives is real as is the social context. The novel is not set at the time that I myself observed elections, but a bit later, in the closing years of the twentieth century. This is because India was entering the digital era, alongside the rest of the globe, and things were changing dramatically. Political agendas were getting even more skewed than before. I hoped that some of the social issues, especially the treatment of women, would be different in the 21st century. I cannot say that there hasn’t been progress, but it is so little, and the crimes perpetrated against women are still not punished severely enough, that it’s dispiriting. 

A separate interest of mine is a general record of the times and the clash between rural and urban India. In the metropolises of India wealthy people can live in a kind of societal freedom to be had in Western cities and I wanted to write about that bubble, where women and men can attempt to carve out alternative destinies for themselves, than what is being dictated to them. However, one of the themes of the book is that no one can escape the tentacles or effects of politics or gossip.

I did a lot of research, following the trajectories of women politicians in all regions of India and from all religions, just so that I had a lot of information to draw on for the steps my fictitious protagonists would take. 

The reason the book took ten years from inception to publication is that I wrote a few chapters every year – that’s all I could manage. In my head I had the story, and I had all the complex characters who people the novel, and all the episodes that make up the book, so it was a question of finding blocks of time in my schedule to set it down on paper. Or rather, in a Word folder on the computer.

In an echo of what so many other authors have probably told you, the actual publication happened because at the very last minute of the Brighthorse prize deadline a friend sent me the link and said ‘You have a completed novel. Don’t you?’ The submission required a full manuscript. And yes, I did have one, having finally re-written and edited till I was pleased with it and I was sending it out instead of just talking about it. Some months later I heard, out of the blue, that I’d won the prize. Publication would happen soon. That was at the end of 2018, and the book was published by Brighthorse in early 2020, so there was a wait of another year. Because Brighthorse is a small indie outfit, they agreed that I could find another publisher for the UK edition once the US edition was released. This is where Linen Press came into the picture and is now launching the UK paperback of Manual For A Decent Life.  

Q- The title is unusual, how did you decide on this? I’d be interested to know if the title is something you have right from the onset of writing or does it evolve out of the narrative?

The title has generated a lot of interest. I chose this title at the stage of the final edit of the manuscript. Before that, for several years, the book had another working title. When I started the novel that other title felt right and there was a chapter that alluded to it, but that chapter was cut when I re-structured the book a few years ago. I don’t recall how this title came to me, but I knew it fitted the theme of the book which questions ‘what is decency?’ The word holds different meanings for different people especially in hypocritical societies. Who is decent and who isn’t? Are the people who consider themselves better than others more decent, as they think they are?

In another sense, that of a self-help book, if you will, ‘Manual For A Decent Life’ also sets out pathways to achieving what each individual may consider a decent life for themselves, and for dealing with consequences. But this is really for the reader to fathom, and as I’ve discovered, several have ascribed their own meanings to the title.  

Q- I am in awe how you write across different forms. You have publication credits for novels, short stories and poetry, which is impressive. When an idea begins to stir do you instinctively know which form it will take or does this change at all during the process?

Oh, thank you, Tracy. I am just happy that I’m able to write. 

To answer your question though, I do know which form a particular piece will take. Poems come unbidden usually and I don’t change them into another form even if I spend a long time re-drafting and crafting into a piece I’m happy with. Short stories begin with a germ of an idea and as I’m writing them I begin to figure out where they are going and how long the piece is going to be. A short short story or a long one?

As for novels, well, I have two ideas on the back burner, hopefully one of them will move to the front burner soon, and I do know they have to be novels because there is so much I want to fit into those particular narratives – so much about “place” and so much about people’s emotions and motivations and the general craziness of our current world.

Q- All writers have their own process, what triggers a new piece and how do you take it through early drafting to publication?

I have a lot of ideas and observations noted down for future pieces of writing. I also clip stories out of the newspaper almost every day. When I’m drafting a piece of work I never think of publication. I really want to set down something that is unhampered by thoughts of ‘is this publishable?’ or ‘what will somebody think when they read this?’ I absolutely want to write how I want to write and say what I want to say. 

However, at the next stage, when I’m preparing to submit for publication, I cast an editor’s eye over the poem or story. I try to be a stranger reading it and I do make changes that I think will work better for publication. Then it’s a case of submitting, and getting on with other things, so that there are no expectations, and when I hear back that a piece is being published, I’m simply happy.

Q- Can you tell us about your next writing project, what do you have in the pipeline?

I’m preparing a manuscript of collected short stories that I would like to see published in book form. 

Q – Most importantly where can we buy a copy of Manual For A Decent Life?

Lots of buying options:

1) From the Linen Press website.

2) Order in bookstores or online from Waterstones, Foyles and some other retailers. 

3) It’s also available at Amazon.

You can learn more about Kavita from:


Twitter: @writerkavita 


My review:

I confess to knowing nothing about life or politics in Indian in the late 1990s, but that made the whole reading experience of ‘Manual for a decent life’ by Kavita A. Jindal all the more intriguing and sweeter. Within pages I cared about Waheeda, her aspirations and dreams, and was quickly immersed in her world. Social constraints have Waheeda trapped in a marriage where her husband no longer wants her in his life, yet they have a daughter, precious to both of them, and cannot separate formally. Pushed into a new political role where she finds herself a candidate in the local elections, Waheeda finds her private life on display at all times and governed by the strict rules of her society and culture. Amidst this scrutiny she risks everything by falling for Monish, a younger Hindu man from a wealthy and influential family, and has to hide their passionate relationship with constant lies and secrecy. We see how complex and dangerous political canvassing is for a female candidate, yet Waheeda bravely embraces the challenge and uses her influence to improve the lives for school-age girls. The final outcome is tragic and heart-breaking as Waheeda’s family is once again ripped apart by violence. 

I enjoyed the rich details of Waheeda’s world in this novel and found it an absorbing story of two people who really should be together but because of social, family and religious rules have to deceive everyone around them for any chance of love. What surprised me was how both men and women are constrained by rigid social rules, neither can find true freedom to simply be themselves or follow their dreams. Lyrical prose and great characters kept me hooked to the end.

Monday, 26 October 2020

All our squandered beauty: novella by Amanda Huggins

Today’s guest is one of my favourite writers, Amanda Huggins. She joins us to chat about her forthcoming novella ‘All our squandered beauty’ from Victorina Press. My review follows at the end of the interview …

Amanda Huggins is the award-winning author of the forthcoming novella All Our Squandered Beauty, as well as four collections of short fiction and poetry. Her travel writing, fiction and poetry have been widely published in anthologies, textbooks and travel guides, as well as newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Telegraph, Wanderlust, Reader's Digest, Writers' Forum, Popshot and Mslexia. Her short stories have also been broadcast on BBC radio.

She has won a number of awards for her travel writing, most notably the BGTW New Travel Writer of the Year in 2014, and has been shortlisted and placed in numerous short story and poetry competitions including Bridport and Fish. In 2018 she was a runner-up in the Costa Short Story Award and her prize-winning story 'Red' features in her latest collection, Scratched Enamel Heart. In 2019 her novella, All Our Squandered Beauty, was shortlisted in the Best Opening Chapter Competition at York Festival of Writing and this year she won the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award, was included in the BIFFY50 list of Best British and Irish Flash Fiction 2019-20, and her poetry chapbook, The Collective Nouns for Birds won the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet.

Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s, and now lives in West Yorkshire.


Kara's father died at sea – or did he? She has spent her teenage years struggling with grief and searching for answers. When she accepts her art tutor's offer to attend a summer school on a Greek island, she discovers once again that everything is not what it seems, and on her return she faces several uncomfortable truths. Could Jake, a local trawlerman, be the key to uncovering the past, and will Kara embrace the possibilities her future offers or turn back to the sea?


". . . a beautifully told coming-of-age story which will capture your heart and deserves to be a classic." Sarah Linley, author of The Trip.

"This is a wonderful read filled with tenderness, charm and hope." Gail Aldwin, author of The String Games.

"Amanda writes with empathy, an eye for vivid detail, a sense of adventure, and great charm." Alison Moore: Booker-shortlisted author of The Lighthouse.

Q. How did All Our Squandered Beauty come into existence? Can you share the inspiration and motivation behind writing this novella?

Hi Tracy, thank you for inviting me to talk about my novella – it’s lovely to be back chatting on The Literary Pig again!

All Our Squandered Beauty started life as a short story – in fact it was the title story of my first collection, Separated From the Sea. Several readers said they wanted to know what happened next, so that was my motivation! 

The inspiration came mainly from my love of the sea, particularly the North Yorkshire coast where I was brought up. Much of my work has the sea at its heart: the way it gives and takes, its strength and cruelty, its transformative power, its untameable beauty. There is a strong sense of living on the edge when the place you call home is bordered by something as immense and unforgiving as the sea. My novella is set in the 1970s, when this fragility of existence, a certain otherness, was often compounded by the fact that coastal village livelihoods were precarious and wrapped up in danger – fishing, mining, the local steelworks.

All Our Squandered Beauty is also set partly in Greece, and I loved writing about the contrast between the two locations and the way these differences affect the characters and their decisions. I have always been interested in how we are formed and moulded by our environment, in the ways in which the places where we are brought up and where we live influence our personalities and perspectives, inform our actions. 

I also took inspiration from a story I read on the internet which explored the near-impossible dilemma when a loved one is presumed dead without their body ever being recovered, and how incredibly hard it is to hope and grieve at the same time. This was the case for thousands of people after the Japanese tsunami in 2011, something I first touched on in my story, ‘The Last of Michiko’ and which I have now examined in depth in the novella.

Q. I love all the myths and folklore that you've woven into this story. Where do these come from and why do they fascinate you?

My parents used to read me a bedtime story every night when I was a small child and I was always drawn to otherworldly tales of elves, goblins and mythical lands, of unusual rituals and local folklore. I grew up being aware of many myths and fables surrounding the fishing communities on the north east coast and I’ve always been interested in the way traditions and rites are religiously observed, passed on from generation to generation, anchoring and binding communities, offering a spiritual comfort. There was no deliberate plan to weave quite so many of these elements into my novella, but my imagination took over! 

In the book, Kara’s late father, Ged Bradshaw, was a trawlerman from a small fishing community, and therefore folklore, ritual ceremony and superstition would have been a part of his daily life. I wanted to explore the way Kara is shaped by these traditions herself, how they become an intrinsic part of her and of the way she navigates her way through the world. 

Q. You write across several forms, including short stories, flash fiction, poetry and now a novella. How did you approach writing a longer piece of prose, did you do anything different in your writing habits? 

When I started writing All Our Squandered Beauty, instead of trying to finish a complete draft I kept editing the first chapter as though it was a short story – a complete waste of time, as the original opening chapters didn’t make the final cut anyway! In the original draft I tried to cover too much ground, so there was much more about Kara’s childhood and early teens than there is in the finished book. I realised I should concentrate on the events of a pivotal summer in Kara’s life, and that the rest was back story. 

When I started re-drafting I found it necessary to bulldoze through the whole manuscript for a continuous period each time – I couldn’t seem to work on it bit by bit in the evenings. Luckily, M and I often go away for week-long cottage breaks, and I also go on a yearly writing retreat with my friend, so I was able to get to the finish line by way of these longer writing sessions.

Q. And do you have any writing superstitions that you can share with us? (For example, I create a specific playlist to listen to when I'm writing a long piece of fiction and dare not listen to anything else.)

I always enjoy hearing about other people’s rituals and good luck charms – I love the idea of a playlist, though it wouldn’t work for me as I need silence when I write! I’m quite superstitious in everyday life – I’m always wishing magpies’ wives well and I avoid walking under ladders – but I don’t have any writing superstitions as such. There is one thing I always try to do though – I stop writing when I still know what will happen next. That way I’m never stuck when I start to write again the next day. 

Q. Do you have any other writing projects in progress or planned?

I’m currently writing my third novella, An Unfamiliar Landscape, set in London and Japan – while still tinkering with the final draft of my second novella, Crossing the Lines. I’m actually hoping this new one might be a full length novel, but we’ll see! Other than that I’ve been busy writing a short story course for Retreat West, which will be up and running soon, and I’m also concentrating on another short story collection.

Q. Most importantly, where can we buy a copy of All Our Squandered Beauty?

All Our Squandered Beauty will be out mid-January 2021 and can be pre-ordered from Victorina Press. 

Thanks again for having me as a guest on The Literary Pig, and for asking such interesting questions!

My review:

‘All our squandered beauty’ is the wonderful new novella by Amanda Huggins (Victorina Press) and my only wish is that I could have kept on reading as I didn’t want it to end. Huggins writes with heart, intuition and a genuine understanding of what makes her characters tick. Her prose is fluid and compelling, woven through with passages of such lyrical beauty that this often felt like a love letter to the North Yorkshire coast (where the author grew up). Kara is seventeen in 1978, a talented artist who is struggling to cope with the aftermath of her beloved dad’s death. His fishing boat was found deserted at sea, his body never recovered, so Kara is stuck in the nightmare stage of her grief, believing he’s not dead but simply lost, or worse he’s abandoned her. These thoughts are damaging her relationships with her mum, best friend and boyfriends. 

The Yorkshire coastal setting, and the Greek island, are enigmatically brought to life by Huggins’ skilful imagery. I particularly enjoyed how local folklore and legends were integral to Kara’s inner world and the significance of beach pebbles and glass became almost magical. Immersed in Kara’s 1978 of cheesecloth and flares I felt completely at home, and didn’t want to leave. She finds passion and romance in Greece, then maybe real love and understanding when she returns to Yorkshire. It’s through the love and kindness of others that Kara finally begins to heal and realise how to balance loss and love, and still achieve her ambitions. For me, the ending was mesmerising and magical, making this a truly fulfilling read.

Friday, 9 October 2020

Seventy Percent Water by Jeanette Sheppard

We have a very special guest for you on the Blog. LitPig welcomes the multi-talented, writer and artist, Jeanette Sheppard to talk about her creative life and debut flash fiction collection SEVENTY PERCENT WATER (published by Ellipsis). Her journey to publication for this collection is truly inspiring and confirms that no matter what life throws at you don’t give up on your writing. 

You can read my review of SEVENTY PERCENT WATER at the end of this post …

Jeanette Sheppard
is a writer and artist living in the UK. Seventy Percent Water is her debut collection and was published in July. Her manuscript won the 2020 Ellipsis Zine Flash Fiction Collection Competition. Jeanette's short fiction has been published in the Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, The Lonely Crowd, Reflex Fiction, Mslexia and in four National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. One of her flash fictions pops out of a vending machine in Canada. Her novella-in-flash, Mother Jellyfish, was Highly Commended in the 2019 Ellipsis Zine Flash Fiction Collection Competition. She is currently redrafting this ready for submission to publishers. 

As an artist Jeanette began by sketching in live situations. More recently, people are asking her to create images for their book covers. She is artist-in-residence for National Flash Fiction Day — her images appear on the 2019 and 2020 anthologies, and she provides images as prompts for the annual Write-In. Her work also appears on the front cover of Diane Simmons' flash fiction collection, Finding a Way (Ad Hoc Fiction) and she has recently completed the front cover image for Alison Woodhouse's novella-in-flash, The House on the Corner (Ad Hoc Fiction).

Seventy Percent Water - Someone or something is missing from their lives.

The collection is made up of a range of small forms, including hermit crab flash, one breathless paragraph, prose poem, micro-fiction told in a handful of sentences, and fragmented flash — some spanning a lifetime. Familial, social and romantic relationships are explored through a sense of who or what is absent. Several of the stories evoke the theme through magical realism — the title story about a woman who tracks down her ex-lover in a hospital corridor takes a fantastical turn of events impossible
to see coming (Han Clark, Lunate Fiction); a woman who accidentally buys trumpet arms on the internet seeks to understand what has gone from her relationship when her human arms are replaced; a young girl struggles with her brother’s lack of love until a buzz begins in her ear; in the opening story, collective fear takes over an ancient village when a missing woodcutter returns physically transformed into a giant creature. Other stories are firmly anchored in the every day — a daughter challenges a medic’s lack of compassion as she conveys powerful images of her mother before she fell ill; a woman with Alzheimer’s asserts her sense of self; a child longs for her jelly-making Dad; a mother, whose adult children have left home, confronts the absence of self-belief when she decides to take up drawing; after the death of her father, a photo on Twitter causes a daughter to reflect on the gender bias in her childhood.

Q-  Can you tell us how this collection came to be written and then published?

Hi Tracy, thank you for inviting me to do a Q&A. It’s great to be here. Some of the flash in the collection was published over several years, but the thread that runs through wasn’t something I planned in a conscious way. I guess that needs some explaining.

Last summer I was working on a novella-in-flash, but I knew Ellipsis would be running their annual flash fiction collection competition in early 2020, so I gathered together my published flash with the intention of creating more at the end of the year. My schedule flew into the air in October when my mother fell and broke her hip. Her dementia meant I needed to be involved at the hospital, rehab, and I had to find her a new nursing home. In February life settled, but I had other creative commitments which would take me through to the end of March — the day Ellipsis closed their submissions window. I made the decision to enter the competition the following year instead. 

Then Covid-19 landed.  

On the day of the closing date, aware of the spin that people were in due to the Coronavirus and lockdown, Ellipsis posted on social media that there would be a week’s extension. Straightaway, I looked at the list on my phone of all the published pieces I had gathered together. At the same time, like so many people, my head was full of thoughts about who and what I would be missing in the months to come. The wires fused together and I came up with the tagline — ‘Someone or something is missing’. I could see that the theme of ‘missing’ wove through my published flashes. I didn't have enough flash for the word count though, and the rules stated half of the collection must be unpublished. Many writers at that time didn’t feel able to write — I was one of them, but redrafting, editing and polishing existing pieces felt possible. I trawled through rough drafts, partially finished drafts and unpublished pieces I’d sent out once or twice, to see if any might fit. I knuckled down to editing and pulling things together. Then, the night before the submissions window closed, the nursing home rang to say that the virus was in the home and that my mum needed to be tested. I was in shock. I belong to a group of flash writers on Facebook where we cheer each other on and I drafted a note on my phone in the evening explaining that I wouldn’t be entering the competition. In the end I told myself finishing what I had started might be the best way to distract myself from the impending test result. There’s no escaping the fact that fear ran through me too — the threat Coronavirus posed in a wider sense. If any of my family or friends contracted the virus how long would it be before I felt able to work on a collection? I wasn’t immune either. There was a real sense of my own mortality—if I don’t do this now, I may never have the chance. I sent in my collection to Ellipsis around fifteen minutes before they closed the doors. A few days later, to my huge relief, my mum’s test result came back negative. 

To my utter shock, I ended up winning the Ellipsis competition. The prize was publication. I worked through lockdown to meet the publication date of early July. I wouldn’t want to suggest for one minute that it takes a pandemic to put a collection together, but I can’t deny the impact of the circumstances. In this case things came together when I least expected it. I hope people take heart from that. There isn’t a single route to publication. Most writers I know are chipping away whenever they can, busy with so many things in their life. 

Q- Seventy Percent Water is a flash fiction collection. Is this a favourite genre of yours to write, and what keeps you coming back to flash fiction?

Yes, I adore flash fiction. In hindsight, I was writing it before I knew what it was called. When National Flash Fiction Day came along nine years ago it was a ping moment, I felt I’d found a home. Since discovering my love of flash it’s never gone away. It’s been great to see it grow in popularity over the years and to watch how it can expand into other forms like a novella-in-flash. 

I’m an experimenter, I guess, and flash is the perfect form in that sense. I can create something surreal like a story about someone with trumpets for arms and then I can write a realistic story about a father buying watermelons.  People have commented that one of the strengths of my collection is the variety, which is thrilling to hear. I keep a notebook of quotes about flash and one I keep coming back to is from Randall Brown, in Rose Metal Press’s excellent ‘Field Guide to Flash Fiction’ — ‘No one way of flash exists’. Variety is important in my life and that feeds into my writing. I can’t mention variety without mentioning Kathy Fish though, it was in her workshops that I learnt about forms like segmented flash, hermit crab flash and one breathless paragraph. There have been many ‘ping’ moments in Kathy’s workshops. I’m a fan of a central image and this can work well in flash. I also love small details, and subtext, which are key to flash. The fall of my gaze in life tends to be close up rather than wide angled. Having said that, there are some flash in my collection that span many years. Randall Brown’s quote is in my head again. 

I think of flash as miniature paintings — something contained within a small space, but there is much more going on beyond the borders. We hear a lot about white space in short fiction, that’s something I’m drawn to. I studied for a degree in theatre studies and then I worked in TV Production — I was looking at scripts full of white space every day. Maybe that’s where the attraction comes from. Not only does flash appeal on a creative level, it has enabled me to continue to write during the years that I looked after my parents. I didn’t have emotional space to write longer fiction and it was difficult to carve out guaranteed time to write — my life was constantly interrupted through necessity, sometimes for months on end. I could snatch moments while sitting in a hospital corridor or in a doctors’ waiting room to put a sentence, a description, or a thought onto my phone. 

Q- A number of stories in the collection felt (to me) very personal, possibly rooted in your own experiences. Is this intentional in your writing? How do you shape and control a story which evolves from something deeply personal to make it ready to publish?

Yes, some of my flash are based on personal experience — Rattle and Spin and Kindling are the closest to memoir, but they still contain elements that I’ve made up. Ha! I think my previous answer about disruption shows intention doesn’t come into a first draft! Having said that, I’ve always thrown down words on the page in the first instance. The less thinking time the better. 

Leaving things aside is especially important with flash rooted in personal experience. It’s impossible to achieve distance in the thick of things. There’s a wonderful flash fiction community out there and sometimes I ask friends for feedback on later drafts, but never on a rough draft because I enjoy rootling around in the mess of words. If it’s something I’ve created in a workshop, writers will sometimes pull out aspects I hadn’t spotted in the flurry of putting down words, and I’ll make notes, but I’ll leave it some time before I come back to the rough draft. I need to feel what I’ve written doesn’t belong to me and think of myself purely as an editor. Putting first words on the page is about heat, passion — a sense of I need to get this down! With a cool editing eye on something inspired by personal circumstances I’m able to see better what serves the story, which usually means making things up. The editing eye usually comes in more than once, of course. In the last few years it’s been necessary to let drafts of my work rest longer than I would have liked, but my life has changed now because my mum died in July, so I’ve yet to establish any kind of pattern for how long I might leave a piece of work before coming back to it.

Q- I love the cover of this collection, which is one of your paintings. As a talented writer and artist, how do you balance the two in your life? Do they both clamour for your time and how do you decide if an idea is best represented by a story or a painting?

Thank you for ‘saying’ that Tracy and I’m thrilled that you love the cover. People have said some lovely things about it. 

Writing has always been my focus and priority, but a few years ago, when I felt unable to form words into any kind of shape, around the time of my mother was first diagnosed with dementia, I began on-location sketching as a way of switching off. On-location sketching is about capturing whatever is in front of me, I’ve never had to fight for time with that — if I’m in a train station, or wherever, I whip out my small square sketchbook, along with my ink pen, waterbrush, and field box, to capture what’s in front of me, or at least I did before Covid-19. I’m delighted to say now though that commissions for book covers are coming in, so I carve out time for that artwork. Diane Simmons saw my sketches and asked if I had anything for the cover of her collection, Finding A Way. That cover has led to other covers. Any commissioned artwork is a delicious bonus, it was never something I intended. 

At first, I wasn’t sure about creating the cover for my collection. I’ve never linked my artwork to my writing, and I find it impossible to create visual images, other than on-location sketches, at a time when I’m writing or editing. That’s partly due to wanting to keep focus, but it’s also about pragmatics. I’m lucky enough to have the back room in our house for all things creative, but it’s a small space, and I have to clear the decks to make room for painting. I’m a messy painter. As with words, in the early stages it’s about getting something down. Ellipsis offered me the chance to create my own cover image, but with publication at the end of July, the schedule was tight.  Steve and I isolated a week when I could focus on the visual side of things. Now that I no longer have caring commitments, there is likely to be time to create more personal art alongside on-location sketching and commissioned work. There is a novella-in-flash to complete first though! 

Q- Can you tell us about your next writing project, what do you have in the pipeline?

Thank you for asking, Tracy. I seem to be answering questions before you’ve asked them! Just in case anyone is reading this question before any others — yes, I’m redrafting a novella-in-flash which I aim to complete before the end of the year. I also have a second flash fiction collection in the corner of my eye. As ever, I don’t know what the collection is about, but that’s fine — I think it’s clear by now that a sense of discovery appeals to me.

Q - Where can we buy a copy of Seventy Percent Water?

My collection is available in paperback, on Kindle and in digital format from Ellipsis. If anyone would like a signed copy they can buy that from me, at the same price. Thank you again for having me on your blog. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to think about how things have evolved for me. 

You can find out more about Jeanette from her website.


Seventy Percent Water is the debut flash fiction collection from Jeannette Sheppard (Ellipsis). These stories have pathos, heart and humour. I particularly loved the mix of pathos and comedy, along with the splashes of surreal imagery which really make this collection stand above others. 

Some of these stories will wrench your heart as their characters wrestle the emotional challenges of seeing a beloved parent deteriorate. Whatever the topic, Sheppard writes with sensitivity and conviction, at times the emotion is overwhelming. Her language literally dances as she suddenly surprises with a burst of comedy reminding us there is always something to smile about, like sunshine glinting through gathering clouds.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Sky Light Rain: a short story collection by Judy Darley

Today I am delighted to welcome Judy Darley as a guest on the Blog to talk about her short story collection Sky Light Rain (published by Valley Press) and her writing process.

Read my review at the end of this post.

British author Judy Darley describes herself as having an enduring fascination with the fallibilities of the human mind. Her short fiction and journalism has been published in the UK, New Zealand, India, US and Canada, including in The Mechanics' Institute Review 16: The Climate Issue, Spelk and SmokeLong Quarterly. She’s Flash Fiction Editor at Reflex Fiction. Judy’s second short story collection Sky Light Rain is out from Valley Press. 

Twitter: @JudyDarley

Website: SkyLightRain.com

In this collection of eerie, beautifully-crafted stories, lives are lived slightly out of sync with the ordinary world. From a man who makes sock puppets to elderly Italian craftswomen and hens at a taxidermy party, family stories are seamlessly woven with folklore, journeys and natural phenomena to examine the quirks, pain and resilience of human existence.

Framing her tales in the nebulous, shimmering concepts of sky, light and rain, Judy Darley deftly explores our relationship with the natural world and one another, reminding us that however far we travel, some connections remain unbreakable.

Sky Light Rain abounds with original imagery. It jostles with ice sculptures, seagull feathers, puppets, flowers, lost suitcases and – unsurprisingly – birds, being a collection that looks upwards into the sky. Many of the stories seem to end with the sense of a new beginning, a newly-discovered peace. This is a rich collection with a distinctive, haunting atmosphere.’
– Heather Child
‘Brave, honest, beautiful.’
– Jayne Joso

Q- Can you share how you found a publisher for the collection?

My first collection ‘Remember Me To The Bees’ came out from a micro press in 2014. I found the process of assembling the collection really satisfying and was keen to publish more of my fiction in this way. I work as a freelance journalist and was already an ardent submitter of short fiction to journals. After a publication printed one of my stories, they expressed interest in publishing a pamphlet of my tales. As the story I’d already published with them was about the sea, I put together a selection of water-based tales. 

However, the publisher then disappeared, as occasionally happens with small presses. I was keen to publish a full-length collection anyway, and the pamphlet stories amounted to a third of the volume I wanted. I set about thinking up two additional themes. 

When I settled on ‘Rain’ for the watery tales, I realised the name of my culture blog already held the components I wanted, so the title ‘Sky Light Rain’ was born.

I searched online for independent presses and came across a few possibilities. I then read a poetry review in the Guardian for Antony Dunn’s ‘Take This One To Bed’. Valley Press was the publisher. Looking at their website I saw that they also published collections of short prose. I wanted to find out more, so I contacted the publisher and asked for a copy to review. I loved how promptly and professionally they responded and the quality of the printed poetry collection that arrived. When they re-opened for submissions, I emailed my collection over. 

Around a year later we chatted via FaceTime and they told me they’d like to publish it. On a rainy afternoon a year and a half after that, I was holding the printed book in my hands and doing a happy dance.

It was a great reminder of the necessity for patience in this industry – which isn’t something that comes naturally to me at all!

Q- I particularly loved the variety in this collection, your stories weave between reality and folklore. Where do you find inspiration and are there themes/topics that you return to?

I’ve always loved reading fiction where reality and folklore intersected in unexpected ways that the protagonists took for granted. ‘Marianne Dreams’ by Catherine Storr was one of my early favourites, along with ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ by Philippa Pearce. Following those days, I discovered Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri and Philip Pullman, among countless others. 

The world is full of wondrous and horrifying improbabilities. When writing, I often feel I’m conjuring something magical through exploring everyday life, while my fairytales and folklore make perfect sense of the situations my characters choose or that choose them. 

I frequently write about people whose sense of reality is slightly off-kilter. My dad has semantic dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; his wavering sense of the world has influenced several stories, including ‘The Sculptor’. I love art, and find artworks prompt tales. My story ‘The Puppeteer’ sprang from a painting by artist Shirley Sharp. As a journalist, I’ve written masses of travel features and these often seep into my fiction, including in my stories ‘Woman and Birds’, ‘Two Pools of Water’, ‘Paper Flowers’, ‘Not Every Wound Can Heal’, and ‘Fin’.

Between April and July 2020, I wrote masses of Covid-19 stories as a way of managing the stress of so much uncertainty, and found myself highlighting the small, claustrophobic details of life in lockdown.

Q- The acknowledgements in this collection shows that your stories have been widely published. How do you source potential homes for your work? Can you share your process and where to find opportunities?

I’m a constant forager when it comes to finding markets for my words. I spend a fair amount of time browsing Twitter, which helps me connect to other writers and literary journals. I also look at author blogs and take note of the publications they’re being featured by. 

I publish calls for submission on my blog SkyLightRain.com, which keeps me abreast of opportunities as they arise. As a journalist, I’m used to writing to a brief. Calls for themed submissions work in a similar way for me, triggering ideas that entice me down unexpected paths. The Cabinet of Heed published two of my stories in their ‘Writing Prompts’ special. 

Journals who’ve published my work recently include Spelk, Perhappened and The Drabble. For 75-word stories, Paragraph Planet is unbeatable.

I keep a spreadsheet of every piece I send out, where it goes and the response. I can’t recommend this approach enough – it helps me to stay unemotional about the pieces that get turned down. The fact is that for every piece published, several will have been rejected. I try to think that when something comes back it just hasn’t found the right home yet. I take a good look at it, see if anything isn’t flowing or if there are substantial changes I need to tackle, and then I begin thinking about where to send it next. 

Q- All writers have their own process, can you talk us through how you create a new story or flash fiction. What triggers a new piece and how do you take it through to publication? 

I’m always on the lookout for fresh creative prompts, partly because I publish weekly ones on my blog, SkyLightRain.com. 

I might see something that lodges as a scene in my head, which I then write down to find out what it could be about. It could be an object left by the side of the road, a couple arguing on a bus, or a child watching the harbour cormorant dry its wings – anything that snags in my mind and starts a ‘What if…’ avalanche. What if that couple are arguing because of a terrible deed they witnessed? What if the cormorant is the child’s father? What if the road-side object is a clue, or if someone just believes it is? 

I might attach the scene to a thought that was already in my head and use exploration of it to examine ideas stemming from an existing myth, Covid-19, vulnerability, or the climate crisis. I might attach two of these odd observations to one another to see what new directions that takes me in. For me, writing is a process of discovery.

Occasionally a story emerges fully-formed, but at other times I need to tease it out, bit by bit. I’m trying to learn to set the first draft aside for a day or week – at least. Sometimes I get stuck when I’ve tried to pile in too much, and other times I get stuck because there isn’t enough – the complete tale is too slight and insubstantial. Time and space really help with writing revisions. I might lift out one thread and discard it, or change a point of view that isn’t working.

I have writer friends I swap stories with to learn how they read to someone who hasn’t got that whole world bubbling in their head. As much remains unwritten as written, and I need to know a tale stands up without needing additional scaffolding.

When a story is rejected, I take that as a chance to look at why. Have I unearthed the themes enough? Was I too subtle or not subtle enough? 

At this stage, I often change the title. It’s amazing what a difference this can make. As Flash Fiction Editor for Reflex Fiction, I’m keen to remind writers to put as much effort into the title as the story – it should work as hard as your first and last lines!

I’m also trying to learn that not every story needs to be finished. Some are just ways to develop an idea, before moving on to the next story. I find giving up on a story difficult.

Q- Can you tell us about your next writing project, what do you have in the pipeline? 

I’ve recently finished my second draft of a middle-grade novel about what happens after the end of human society as we know it. The protagonist and her family set out to find a safe place to start afresh. It explores my pervading concerns about the climate crisis, as well as darker aspects of human nature. Book Two is sitting in my head, but I don’t want to start work on that until I’m certain Book One works. I was lucky enough to gain a place on WriterMentor’s 2020 summer school. Working with a mentor on the opening chapters has helped me to take the full manuscript apart and put it back together again into a far better book. Luckily, as a journalist I’m no stranger to editing in response to feedback.

I’m also beginning the slow, satisfying process of assembling my third short story collection, identifying themes to stitch the whole thing together. 

Q - Where can we buy a copy of Sky Light Rain?

Sky Light Rain is available from Valley Press.

I’m publishing an insight series into the collection over the next few weeks. To find out about the inspiration behind each individual tale, visit my blog.

Thanks so much for inviting me to take part, and for your thought-provoking questions!

My Review:

Sky Light Rain by Judy Darley (Valley Press) is a collection of short and flash stories, and follows her debut collection Remember Me to the Bees (2013). This collection consists of three parts: Sky, Light and Rain, which explore nature and our relationship with the world around us. I loved how the stories weave between reality, very recognisable contemporary settings, and folklore where the world isn’t quite what we expect.

 The settings continually change, allowing us glimpses into the lives of people all across the globe and time. The characters are rich and varied, all with distinct voices and stories to tell. Sometimes the story seems familiar and then it distorts, the characters are not what they seem, they may have stepped out of folklore but still share the same heartfelt struggles and desires as us.

 This is a beautifully written collection where each story compels you to keep reading. The mix of short stories and flash fiction is perfectly balanced, the flash pieces are a burst of emotion, making you gasp, before you immerse back into the longer stories and their intriguing characters. 

Monday, 1 June 2020

Scratched Enamel Heart: a short story collection by Amanda Huggins

Today I am delighted to welcome one of my favourite writers as a guest on the Blog. Amanda Huggins has kindly returned to talk about her new short story collection Scratched Enamel Heart (published by Retreat West Books). 
Read my review at the end of this post.
Amanda Huggins is the author of Scratched Enamel Heart, a new short story collection which features ‘Red’, her prize-winning story from the 2018 Costa Short Story Award. Her previous short story collection, Separated From the Sea, received a Special Mention in the 2019 Saboteur Awards. She has also published a flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses and a poetry collection, The Collective Nouns for Birds, which won the 2020 Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet.

Her fiction and poetry have been placed and listed in numerous competitions including Fish, Bridport, Bath, InkTears, the Alpine Fellowship Writing Award and the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award. Her travel writing has also won several awards, notably the BGTW New Travel Writer of the Year in 2014, and she has twice been a finalist in the Bradt Guides New Travel Writer Award.

Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s, and now lives in West Yorkshire.

Scratched Enamel Heart

The resilience and frailty of the human heart lie at the core of this second short story collection from award-winning author, Amanda Huggins.          

A lonely woman spends a perfect night with a stranger, yet is their connection enough to make her realise life is worth living? Maya, a refugee, wears a bracelet strung with charms that are a lifeline to her past; when the past catches up with her, she has a difficult decision to make. Rowe’s life on the Yorkshire coast is already mapped out for him, but when there is an accident at the steelworks he knows he has to flee from an intolerable future. In the Costa prize-winning ‘Red’, Mollie is desperate to leave Oakridge Farm and her abusive stepfather, to walk free with the stray dog she has named Hal.

These are stories filled with yearning and hope, the search for connection and the longing to escape. They transport the reader from India to Japan, from mid-west America to the north-east coast of England, from New York to London. Battered, bruised, jaded or jilted, the human heart somehow endures.

Animals and nature feature in so much of your writing, is this intentional? What part do animals/wildlife/nature play in your own life, do any of your fictional creatures come from your own experience of animals?

No, it isn’t intentional, however I do have a deep-rooted love of animals and the natural world, so I guess it’s inevitable. My partner and I are members of the RSPB and really enjoy birdwatching, both at nature reserves and while walking on the moors or the Northumberland coastal paths. We also have a menagerie of seven part-time cats – four semi-strays which we feed, and three others which are perfectly well looked after but have just latched onto a good thing!

I always aim to convey a strong sense of place in my stories, and rural landscapes feature regularly in my work. I’m originally from the Yorkshire coast, so the sea plays an important part in a number of my stories – such as ‘Where the Sky Starts’ and ‘Light Box’ in Scratched Enamel Heart – and it is also the all-encompassing theme of my debut novella, All Our Squandered Beauty. I find my characters are shaped by the places they inhabit, particularly in those stories set in the distinctive landscapes of India, Japan and  North America – for example, ‘A Longing for Clouds’ and ‘Red’.

The locations which feature in my stories are always inspired by real life travels – I would never set a story somewhere I hadn’t visited myself. The koi fish and the beautiful garden in ‘A Potential Husband’ were inspired by my travels in Japan, as were the fireflies in ‘Soul of a Fighter’. Nature also features heavily in my poetry, and one of my favourite poems in The Collective Nouns for Birds is ‘At the Kitchen Table’, which I wrote when snowed-in in the North Pennines.

Hal, the dog in ‘Red’, is a creature of the imagination, though I’d love to own a dog like him! Similarly, Jigsaw, in ‘Where the Sky Starts’ isn’t based on a real pony, though I loved horses and horse riding as a child and often pretended that the grey stallion which lived in a nearby field was mine! The only real life creature I have written about is my favourite cat, Duzzy – she was the inspiration for the poem ‘Not-Quite-You’ in The Collective Nouns for Birds.

I am a self-confessed fan of all your writing, Mandy. You are an inspiration particularly as you write across different genres and forms. When an idea first comes to you how do you decide on its final written form, what is your decision process for turning it into a story, flash fiction or poem or longer?

Thank you, Tracy, you are very kind! I’m a huge fan of your writing too!

The truth is that I don’t often think about the final written form when I start to write. As the idea develops, it becomes what it wants to be, but often changes its mind! Poems have morphed into stories and vice versa – as you’ll see from reading The Collective Nouns for Birds and Scratched Enamel Heart side by side – and stories that tried to be something longer have ended up being flash fiction. Also, all three of my novellas are based on short stories of approximately 2000 words – it’s all very fluid. Because my prose leans towards the lyrical and I tend to write a lot of narrative poetry, I find there is a natural crossover between the two writing forms.

How have you found writing during lockdown? Have the words dried (I've struggled to write any fiction) or have you tapped into a flood? Can you share any top tips for surviving lockdown as a writer? (I know this might be obsolete by the time of posting - so I may change the question to how you survived and kept writing (or not) during lockdown).

At the beginning of lockdown I was still heading out every morning to the day job, and I found that incredibly stressful and suffered from deep anxiety and the odd panic attack. I also felt guilty and useless for feeling that way when all around me there were people going to work in much more dangerous circumstances and of course still are.

As a result I struggled to write anything new for weeks – or to concentrate well enough to read – but I did eventually produce a poem and a short flash piece about the lockdown. The latter is published on the 100 Words of Solitude website here.

I think the lockdown experience may inform my future writing in more depth, but it’s too close right now.

I find that walking and communing with nature help to get the words flowing inside my head – I just wish I could hold onto them until I got home! And when I find my mind is a blank, then I look at an old piece of work I’d given up on to try and spark new ideas.

I’m surviving furlough by sticking to a rigid routine. I get up early, go for a walk before I sit down at the computer, and then exercise again before lunch, and take time out to read in the afternoon. My partner and I have also spent more time together watching TV in the evenings – something we would never normally do!

We all have our favourite stories. Sorry to ask you to choose between them but do you have a favourite(s) from this collection and why?

It’s a tough question, but I think my favourite story has to be ‘Red’. It was rejected by several magazines, and failed to reach so much as the longlist in three smaller competitions, before it went on to win third prize in the 2018 Costa Short Story Award. I always had faith in it, and that faith was eventually rewarded!

There are a few other contenders as well, including ‘Part of Sami, Part of Malik’ about the bond between two refugees, which was written for Interact Stroke Support. I had the joy of listening to it performed live by the fabulous actor, Andy Lucas at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston back in February. I’m also fond of ‘A Brightness To It’, the newest story in the collection, and the one which my third novella will be based around, and ‘A Longing for Clouds’, a story set in India that has been around for a good ten years in many guises and versions. The protagonist, Maggie, is one of my favourite characters.

Can you tell us about your next writing project, what do you have in the pipeline?

As you’ll have gathered, I’m juggling three novellas at the moment! I’ve just started the third, and am currently tweaking the second, Crossing the Lines, which is based on the story, ‘Red’. My first novella, All Our Squandered Beauty, based on the title story from Separated From the Sea, will be published soon by Victorina Press.

Where can we buy a copy of Scratched Enamel Heart?

My review of Scratched Enamel Heart:
Scratched Enamel Heart by Amanda Huggins (Retreat West Books) is a collection of 24 stories, and impressively her third collection of short fiction. The prose throughout, whether in flash form or longer, is breath-taking at times, lyrical as poetry and heart-wrenching.
Numerous stories made me cry, purely because they triggered an emotional resonance. I cried at the ending of the opening story, ‘Where the Sky Starts’, not because it was sad or tragic but I completely understood the protagonist and his desire to escape. Each story has an authentic setting which brings it alive, and Huggins takes us all over the world to drop the reader into new and different landscapes. I particularly loved how I didn’t what to expect when starting a story, these stories are as unique and individual as the charms on Maya’s bracelet in ‘Scratched Enamel Heart’. The characters are often the forgotten and overlooked people of our world, the refugees, the abused and those who believe themselves unlovable. Some of them find refuge, home and acceptance, others don’t always get the happy ending they long for.

To pick out a favourite story is tough, one is the Costa Short Story Award finalist ‘Red’, an uncomfortable story where a girl finds a much needed friend in a wild dog. Others include the title story and ‘A longing for clouds’, again about friendship but this time between an employer and her long-suffering loyal employee. The shorter flash stories intersperse their longer siblings, sometimes making you gasp or gulp with their power and never breaking the spell.

A collection to keep and cherish, to read again when times are tough and remember our lives can be filled with love, friendship and understanding. Amanda Huggins is a writer who understands what makes the world beautiful.